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Different definitions of ‘urgent’

May 27th, 2006

Dr Petra

As you know I’ve just got back from working in South Africa. During the time I was away I indicated on my voicemail that I’d be out of the country for a few weeks, and when people could get in touch with me on my return. This was to make it clear to journalists or colleagues who didn’t know I was away not to expect to hear from me for a while, and when I’d be next available to help with work or quotes for stories.

The message clearly stated people should only leave a message in case of emergency.

My understanding of this meant I’d only get any urgent calls from friends or family. I also thought it would help journalists since they wouldn’t waste their time leaving a message for me and could find other contacts to help them with quotes.

Whilst most journalists did listen to the message, a few clearly had a different understanding of urgency than I did.

Messages left included ones that sounded like the journalists were rushed but were so vague there was no knowing what I’d be calling about, or even if it was something I could help with…..

“Um yeah I’m ____________ from [newspaper] and I’m working on a feature that I have to have a quote for and I really need you to call me back by midday today because it is important and I’m on a deadline”

Or those that weren’t exactly top of the sex story league…

“Hey Petra. I’m writing a piece for [women’s magazine] and I really would love a quote from you. It’s about how summer fashions predict what you’ll be like in bed, so if you wear a bikini you’ll be sexy yeah? And if you wear a sarong you may have hidden depths but are good in bed. Quote needed by end of today so please call back’

Clearly these journalist’s ideas about what constituted and emergency and mine were very different, although the one that took the prize for the most tactless message was….

‘Hi, I hope you’re having a great holiday. All right for some getting time off. Well, I expect you’re on a beach now but when you’re free later can you ring me back on ____________ because I’m writing a story about having a sex fling on holiday and I need some quotes. In fact you’re probably doing a personal investigation on this right now so you can chat about that [giggle]’

The fact that I picked that message up just as I left an HIV clinic where patients stretched around the block to wait to see a doctor didn’t encourage me to call the journalist back.

Ranting about it to my partner (who is a journalist) didn’t bring much comfort though. ‘They have a deadline. That is an emergency to them’ they stated simply.

Which I can understand, although since there are so many people you can get quotes from, if someone’s voicemail says they’re out of the country until a set date perhaps you can just ring off and leave them to it.

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